Rough ground of character: a philosophical investigation into character development, examining a wilderness expedition case study through a virtue ethical lens
Stonehouse, Victor Paul
MetadataShow full item record
There is a long-held assumption that Outdoor Adventure Education (OAE) can develop character. However, little research has explored this belief. While many practitioners, and some scholars, remain committed to character development through OAE, the literature also reveals a growing body of discomfort and suspicion surrounding this assumption. This dissent centres on the vague nature of the term “character,” and the moral philosophical complexities surrounding the concept of character itself. Until “character” is more clearly explicated, any resolution to the current confusion is unlikely. This thesis employs Aristotle’s virtue theory, as espoused in his Nicomachean Ethics, to articulate an understanding of character. Although several scholars have used virtue ethics, commonly referred to as character ethics, to support their claims of character development through OAE, these treatments have been preliminary, warranting this more detailed account. When viewed from this virtue ethical perspective, the question, “Can character be developed through OAE?,” becomes problematic. For Aristotle cautions that different subjects of inquiry yield differing levels of accuracy, and with regard to ethical investigations, such as those into character, one must be content to “indicate the truth roughly and in outline” (I 3§4). Further complicating the matter, Aristotle asserts that virtue, a disposition, and the building block of character is gradually and arduously inculcated over long periods of time (I 7§16). While virtue theory implies that radical character transformation is, in any context, unlikely over brief stints of time, this does not mean that OAE programmes are of little moral worth. To the contrary, a detailed examination into a virtue ethical understanding of character suggests that certain elements of OAE programmes may xii have strong moral relevance. This relevance is found in Aristotle’s three conditions that cultivate the development of virtue, conditions readily found within many OAE courses: moral reflection; moral practice; and sharing in the moral lives of others. Drawing on my own interest and experience within OAE, an expedition seemed an ideal setting to explore the presence and content of Aristotle’s three conditions. In hope of discovering this moral narrative, a qualitative case study was conducted on a two-week wilderness expedition in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The expedition was a first-year transition experience for students attending a Christian liberal college in the United States. Utilising interviews as a primary method, and observations and texts as secondary methods, the research explored the participants’ expedition experience from a virtue ethical perspective. A thematic analysis revealed that participants reported reflecting on their moral lives in both formal (e.g. group reviews, solo, journals) and informal (e.g. while hiking and performing camp chores) settings. Similarly, whether through the mental and physical endurance required in off-trail navigation, or the care expressed through the acts of service and gracious tolerance necessitated by the social demands of expeditionary life, the participants viewed their wilderness travel as a constant opportunity for moral practice. Lastly, the participants identified the community formed on their expedition to be integral to their increased moral self-perception. Although a virtue ethical perspective precludes claiming anything definitive regarding the participants’ character development, at the least, the expedition can be said to have contributed to their moral journey in ways that are directly relevant to their character.